My mother, the evangelist

By Kit Carlson

An old youth group friend of mine recently died, and as I read her obituary, about her good work with her local parish, her funeral in a large Episcopal church in Manhattan, I thought, “Yup, Mom, you got another one.”

My mother was very proud of the people she “got” into the Episcopal church. As her own death neared, she would often run them off on her fingers, her friends, my friends, my sister’s friends, all the people she had managed to get firmly planted in some local parish. Jack and Jodie, Marcia and Chuck, Ken and Sally, Susan, Patty, Merrie. She was almost as bad as my high school Baptist friends, totting up her converts with pride.

But my mother was an unlikely evangelist. Her belief in God was tenuous at best, she rejected most of the sentences in the creeds, she railed at the hypocrisy she found in Bible studies and Episcopal Church Women groups, and she complained about the priests in our high, Anglo-Catholic parish. Holding her nose against the incense, she would murmur, “Do they have to swish around like that in those robes?”

Still, she loved getting people settled in a church home. And she believed, to the end of her days, that the Episcopal church was the best church home anyone could find. She relished inviting people to join her at church … even if it was the first time she had gone in months, and she was only going to escort them. She gleefully coaxed my sister’s and my friends into joining us for youth group. And when they got baptized or confirmed, or married, she was there with bells on … or at least a great hat and matching shoes.

Now my mother could sell snow to Canadians. She had a variety of careers selling everything from real estate to home health services. And perhaps her salesmanship just carried over to matters of the church as well. But I wonder, after all these years of Decades of Evangelism and 20/20, and every program the church has dreamed up to introduce people to the Episcopal way … I wonder if maybe her approach isn’t the better one, even if it is the more neglected one.

For we all know people who are lonely, and who need a community. And we all know people who have questions about faith, and who need a safe place to bring those questions. And we know people who are seeking meaning and purpose and need companions in that journey. They are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s friends

Somehow, though, we continually fail to overcome our reticence, our “politeness,” our fear of rejection. We eagerly tell these folks about great movies, new restaurants, trustworthy doctors. Yet when the ultimate questions of life and faith and purpose arise, we fall silent. We do not offer what we have found inside the big red doors of our local Episcopal church. We do not promise to take someone with us and sit with them until they learn the service. We do not invite them to parish suppers or Messiah sing-alongs.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with “getting” someone into the Episcopal Church. Perhaps it is something our friends will thank us for in the end, something their loved ones might thank us for at the very end, when the folks we “got” into the church exit this world and enter the next, borne along on the liturgy of the Episcopal burial service, sustained by the love and care of their church family.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

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